The poet Patrick Phillips brings us a stunning third collection that is at its core a son’s lament for his father. This book of elegies takes us from the luminous world of childhood to the fluorescent glare of operating rooms and recovery wards, and into the twilight lives of those who must go on. In one poem Phillips watches his sons play “Mercy” just as he did with his brother: hands laced, the stronger pushing the other back until he grunts for mercy, “a game we played // so many times / I finally taught my sons, // not knowing what it was, / until too late, I’d done.” Phillips documents the unsung joys of midlife, the betrayals of the human body, and his realization that as the crowd of ghosts grows, we take our places, next in line. The result is a twenty-first-century memento mori, fashioned not just from loss but also from praise, and a fierce love for the world in all its ruined splendor.
Phillips (Boy) examines masculinity and loss with a surgeon's precision in his elegiac third book. The poems occupy a space that is, in his own words, "Something like sadness/ like joy, like a sudden/ love for my life,// and for the body/ in which I have lived it,/ overtaking me all at once." The figures of father and son, brother and husband, all play out here often simultaneously and Phillips's careful language consciously breaks down these distinctions, fusing the roles men play throughout their lives, and connecting past to present. While at his son's soccer game, the poet observes that "the father/ of my son's friend/ watched his father die," and in doing so sees "the truth about love, about all of us,/ so plain in him/ there was nothing left// but to pretend I was not watching." Phillips scrapes away nostalgia to reveal raw, sparse reflections. He writes of a body: "Soon the undertaker's sons/ will come and lift this/ strangest of all strange things:// a palimpsest/ of what we loved,/ a nest in the brittle leaves." And Phillips ponders just what makes a human body different from any other relinquished object, imagining his mattress decaying at the dump "as it sloughs its guts into the dirt."